Are You a Sustainability Hypocrite?

Harnessing your cognitive dissonance for sustainability

Posted May 09, 2013

In the face of mounting scientific evidence, sometimes-dramatic weather events, vivid media images of melting polar icecaps and suffering polar bears, and the knowledge that naysayers are biased due to petroleum industry ties and political loyalties, Americans are finally accepting the reality of climate change.

But accepting that climate change is real and aggravated by our fossil-fueled lifestyles and practices, challenges us to act more sustainably in our personal lives. To do otherwise is to invite cognitive dissonance, that pesky internal conflict generated by self-hypocrisy. We are called upon by our own selves to drive less, stop wasting electricity, recycle religiously, make green consumer choices, take shorter showers, and reuse our shopping bags (among other things). And the more we care, that is, the higher we are in what psychologists call environmental concern, and the more knowledgeable we are about what actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, the more dissonance we should feel if we carry on in our consumptive habits.

Yet psychologists that study proenvironmental behavior will tell you that environmental attitudes are no guarantee of consistent environmental behavior. In research I conducted with Patricia Winter (a research psychologist at the USDA Forest Service), and undergraduate student Brittany Hori at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, we found that one of the greatest barriers to personal sustainability behavior was habit.

Many of the behaviors we need to modify are everyday behaviors that are mindless and routine, performed automatically. They rely on what psychologists like Daniel Kahneman call “System 1 thinking.” A temporary switch to “System 2 thinking” (an effortful, conscious type of thought) is necessary until a new behavior becomes the default.

Of course it doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you that changing habits is hard. Fortunately, decades of research by environmental and conservation psychologists offer guidance. As far as adopting new sustainable behavior habits, this research suggests that we:

  • Use prompts (reminders) posted where the behavior occurs to remind us to perform the new behavior. For example, when I was developing my reusable bag habit, I put “sticky notes” on my dashboard to remind me to take the bags with me into the store.
  • Modify our environments so that it is easy and convenient to perform the desired behavior. For example, I keep my shopping bags in an attractive tote on the back seat of my car.
  • Make a public commitment to behavior change. Sign a pledge to commit to a specific sustainability behavior and post it where others can see it. Research finds even a simple pledge (e.g., “I, ________, pledge to make a sincere effort to ________”) can make a difference. Verbally state your intention to change loudly and proudly to others.
  • Don’t be too quick to give up. It takes time to build a new habit. Stick with it and before long it will be your new normal.


S.M. Burn, & S. Oskamp (1986). Increasing community recycling with persuasive communications and public commitment. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 16:29-41.

J.A., Corraliza & J.Berenguer (2000). Environmental values, beliefs, and actions: A situational approach. Environment and Behavior, 32, 832-848.

C.A.Dickerson, R., Thibodeau, E. Aronson, & D. Miller (1992). Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22, 841-854.

G.A. Guagnano, , P. C. Stern, & T. Dietz (1995). Influences of attitude-behavior relationships: A natural experiment with curbside recycling. Environment and Behavior, 27, 699-718.

D. Kahneman (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.